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Rehearsal Dinner; updated 2 Aug 2016

At funerals are heard some of the most poignant expressions of love, faith, hope, and memory. Our loved ones shouldn’t miss out on that.

Photo of Julia Wardle
20 29

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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

For families who want to host a send-off for their loved one but don't know what would be appropriate, this kind of gathering is respectable and intimate. Immediate family and close friends can come together to recognize and uplift the Guest of Honor with stories, songs, sentiments, and beliefs just as they would after their loved one has passed.

Literary Inspiration: The Fault in Our Stars and Tuesdays with Morrie

Rituals, Customs and Cultural Values Ground Us in Life

Like weddings have rehearsal dinners where we anticipate the couples' union and take advantage of those precious moments before the turning point in their lives, we should host a rehearsal dinner for those about to leave mortality behind. Both the living and the dying struggle to express their parting wishes and emotions at the end of life, and a funeral provides loved ones with the ultimate emotional release and closure, what Morgan Robison calls the “opportunity to emotionally compartmentalize dealing with death.” Wouldn’t this be the best kind of send-off a person could ask for? As they are about to be reunited with their ancestors, we can give them a preview of how they will be missed by those still living. Let them be present for the words that will be spoken at their funeral. Let them hear the songs that will be sung and feel the spirit of love and family around them before they pass. Let them know what they mean to us and what their legacy will be.

Not For Everyone

This idea is hard, and the circumstances of death are unique to each person. Preparing for such a celebration could be physically or emotionally overwhelming to the dying person or their family. Timing is also a concern. As Chris Lee pointed out, “those final days too often are marked by delirium, discomfort, and/or detachment of the individual from his/her social circles.” That being said, there is definitely a place for the rehearsal dinner. Many families struggle with feelings of guilt or inability to carry on with life because a loved one is close to death for a long period of time. Although this gathering may be premature to death, it could also provide closure sooner and, if need be, an opportunity to shift care taking responsibility.

It Takes a Village

Starting a new tradition of funeral rehearsal dinners can bring closure to everyone involved and allow them to focus on the culmination of lived experience rather than letting it fade. In this effort, I envision the collaboration of hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, party planners, and family counselors. Hospitals could host in a reception hall – something small, but as aesthetically pleasing as possible, warm, with artwork and windows, and dining or sitting options. Hospitals could even cater if they chose. There would be medical technology accessible but not very visible. I think this could go a long way in not only increasing overall patient satisfaction for hospitals whose primary consumers are towards the end of life, but it would also improve the overall perception of hospitals as places that don't just take the sick but welcome people with malady along with their families. Yoko K. calls this the shift from hospitals as “disease control centers” to places of wellness.

Mental health is a big part of the end of life experience. An idea that is quickly gaining ground in DC is the “Death Doula.” Typically, a doula is like a midwife or birthing coach – helping mothers by giving emotional support and empathy during the birth process. A death doula is just at the opposite end of life. They smooth the transition for individuals and their families through active presence. Read more in this article by the Washington Post. I think that this concept would wonderfully coincide in the celebration of life through a rehearsal dinner.

Meeting the Expectation

Hospitals typically have brochures to provide information to patients who are getting their affairs in order. One of the first steps in this project would be to advertise ideas and services for planning a rehearsal dinner. This way, hospitals can be involved but not immediately invested and can outsource rehearsal dinner preparations to the community.

Another simple implementation at the start of this project would be a toolkit for someone considering a rehearsal dinner - a checklist of sorts that would help the participants create a personalized, comfortable, and happy event. This would include physical planning of location, organizer, food, music, guests, and medical intervention, but would also include emotional planning. Chelsea Ducharme suggested, “How the person being celebrated can prepare for the day, as in being emotionally open and ready for what they may hear.” “A comfort level inventory: avoiding excessive sadness and tears.”

Virtual Space

We already have the communication technology to make an event like this successful in a virtual space. This could help with the timing issue so that people who can’t make it to the rehearsal dinner and to the funeral could opt to join via Facetime/Skype/Hangouts/etc. I think it could also help the younger generation to become invested.

User Experience Map

User Experience Map

Help from OpenIDEO

I like the name of “rehearsal dinner” because it would mean having a semblance of the funeral just as a regular rehearsal dinner goes through some of the motions for a wedding. But I've heard retirement party, pre-funeral... what would you want to call yours?

Intercultural Space

Morgan Robison wrote about the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies concerning death. These are a couple of her comments but I would love to hear more perspective on international cultures.

“Our emotions, household obligations, transportation, daily duties, bodily preparations, burials or cremations, and ceremonies are dispatched and tended to by professionals, family members, and our immediate community. We deal less with the body and its preparation, and more with emotional stresses and accommodating travel and work schedules.”

“The idea of privacy [is] very intriguing, as we desire our [loved ones’ funerals] to have high attendance rates…, but still be private and closed events where attending individuals are expected to dress, act, and uphold the family standards. We need ownership over the body, the space, the ceremony, even the road when transporting the body. [Alternatively,] the idea of multiple strangers’ bodies having funerals in the same space simultaneously [conveys] that the funeral is for the body and not for those left behind, as the dead do not require privacy.”

Tell us about your work experience:

Having worked with Sen Sound in healthcare and design, I think this is a great opportunity to combine empathetic design principles with family traditions and innovation in hospitals.

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20 comments

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Photo of Stephen
Team

I have been experiencing my own major life transition (job change) and checked out of this challenge for a while, but I'm so glad to see this idea has made it through. I was also inspired by the pre-funeral scene in TFiOS and related a story from a friend's retirement party (although I wasn't thinking directly about death as "retiring" from this world, just a similar transition). I *LOVE* the idea of framing it as a "Rehearsal Dinner." Although we typically associate these dinners as occurring on the night before the "big day," I don't see anything wrong with having such a rehearsal occur well before the day that, in our culture, is generally viewed with dread. In fact, I think for many of us, we could probably use lots of rehearsals to prepare us for that day. 

Photo of Joanna
Team

Hi Julia! I wanted to quickly pass along some feedback we recently received from our challenge sponsors and advisory panel: "We love that this is a celebration of living before funerals. We're curious how this might be part of a larger social movement – might there be a virtual element? We're also wondering about how timing might be a tricky piece of the "Rehearsal Dinner." Rehearsal Dinners in other contexts are the night before, or planned to be strategically right before the event itself. However, it might be hard to know when or if someone will die. Maybe there are other titles we could play around with! Your idea inspired us to think a bit more broadly around how death might be faked in order to wake up or change a perspective..."

And Alex Drane, who's on our advisory panel, loves your idea because we shouldn't save eulogies for after someone is dead!


Looking forward to seeing your idea continue to evolve in this last week of our Refinement phase.

Photo of Morgan
Team

I like how this is referred to as a rehearsal dinner instead of a ‘living funeral’ used in “Tuesdays With Morrie”, and incredible book as a side note.  But this celebration of life is something I wish many cultures further embraced.  In the United States, I see this as an opportunity to emotionally compartmentalize dealing with death (for younger children, and those most connected with the individual).  It gives everyone the chance and appropriate space to share.  I wrote a paper about the United States burial process and referenced it as: 'an actualization for ourselves' and 'for the living’.  This creates an event for the living, to give them one last gift, and has the potential to redefine the ominous and painful experiences in funerals. 

Photo of Julia
Team

Thanks Morgan!
It's been a while since I've read Tuesdays with Morrie so I will definitely look that up again. I also like your phrase "emotionally compartmentalize dealing with death." Please, if you get the chance, email me a copy of your paper - I'd love to read it. 

Photo of Morgan
Team

Would love to! my email is mlr036@bucknell.edu, you can send me your email there and Ill send you the paper! It was limited to 3 pages and a direct comparison to Hindu practices, but may have a few things you can pull to promote this amazing idea :)

Photo of An Old
Team

I concur with a lot of what others have already said - what a beautiful and happy celebration this could be for many. I would add to the discussion that it may be useful to have some sort of quick toolkit for those involved in this kind of celebration. Perhaps little sections that would be meant for various stakeholders that would include things like:
-How the person being celebrated can prepare for the day, as in being emotionally open and ready for what they may hear. Also perhaps a checklist for them to make sure they are truly comfortable/going to be okay with this kind of event. I imagine it wouldn't be successful if the person is not truly comfortable with it.
-How those attending can prepare and come in feeling comfortable and ready to share bright spots. I imagine that for many, it might be important to keep the whole event light and happy, avoiding excessive sadness and tears. 
-How those planning the event can help ensure success - is there a structure/format that might work best after doing a bit of "prototyping" ? Are there certain considerations in deciding venue to ensure all are comfortable? How should the guest list be created?
Etc. Those are just some quick/initial thoughts. But as this is a fairly non-traditional concept, having some tools to help craft the event might be helpful. 

Best wishes! I love the idea of sharing love and memories to celebrate a life well lived. 

Photo of Julia
Team

Chelsea,

I love your idea for a toolkit - this way, if the idea is not able to create an actual physical space, it can definitely provide specific direction for those wanting to plan an event such as this. A checklist of sorts that would help the participants create a personalized, comfortable, and happy event. I think a big part of making sure the process is smooth and enriching would be to involve an end-of-life coach that may be able to mediate the experience by providing such a checklist for family members to plan the event or by being present for the planning and the event. I'm hoping to get feedback on this from a few contacts soon.  Thanks again!

Photo of Madeline
Team

Hi Julia,

What a wonderful idea. I would love to have had a family experience set aside to honor and celebrate family members at the end of life before their passing, when they can be part of the experience and hear from those closest to them what their life has meant and brought to the family. We recently had an 80th birthday celebration for my Grandmother, and it was heartwarming to see all of her friends and family gathered to together to celebrate her, and have a particular reason to shower her with love and appreciation for all that she has done in our lives. 

It does seem that it would be important for hospitals to have a space or a room set aside for this purpose. I'm curious what you envision the space looking like, and what equipment or supplies it would need. Do you envision the tradition including "rehearsal lunches" or "rehearsal gatherings" as well? Would the tradition still be called "rehearsal" dinners, or would you consider a name that's specific to the stage of life of the person reaching end of life?

Great idea, looking forward to reading about any prototype experiences that you come up with.

Photo of Julia
Team

Madeline, 
Thanks for your feedback. What I envision for a reception hall in the hospital is not huge but as aesthetically pleasing as possible - warm with artwork and windows and dining or sitting options. The hospital could cater if they chose. There would be medical technology accessible but not very visible. I think this could go a long way in not only increasing overall patient satisfaction for hospitals whose primary consumers are towards the end of life, but it would also improve the overall perception of hospitals as places that don't just take the sick but welcome people with malady along with their families. 
I like the idea of a rehearsal dinner because it would mean having a semblance of the funeral just as a regular rehearsal dinner goes through some of the motions for a wedding. But I've heard retirement party, pre-funeral... what would you want to call yours?

Photo of Grace
Team

This is a great idea. I actually discussed throwing just such a party with my stepdad while he was progressing toward death from leukemia. He and I conceived it as a "retirement party." However, I echo Ken's comment that this event needs to be designed to happen while the person is still well enough to participate and enjoy it. In my stepdad's case, the idea came to us a little too late for that.

Photo of Julia
Team

Grace,
Thank you for sharing your experience. I do feel like that might be a shortcoming for many people - is there a variation of the rehearsal dinner/retirement party that you think could cater to a more low-key or last-minute participant? Would a virtual space make this easier for someone in your stepdad's situation? Again, I appreciate any insight.

Photo of Bettina
Team

Hi Julia.

When I read your post I was reminded of the amazing party scene in the film Philadelphia, 1993, about the AIDS epidemic and homophobia.  I do not recall the party being specifically for the purpose you propose here, but I do recall thinking at the time that it was essentially what you are proposing here.  I experienced it as beautiful, celebratory, sad, and life affirming all at once.  Basically it was incredible!

I appreciate your suggestion to create a space in hospitals for this.  I think it would also be great to create time within the conversation in healthcare to bring this to the attention of patients with illness when treatment has failed and end of life is approaching.  Many more patients are receiving out patient care now and although might die inpatient, they come in at the last moments and might be too ill to be able to participate on site.

Photo of Julia
Team

Bettina, 

Thank you - I have not seen the film but that sounds about right. I've thought about how individuals would hear about and get the chance to participate in a rehearsal dinner and hospitals is the first venue that came to mind because I think most experience treatment at some point on their way to passing on. However, healthcare facilities could simply convey the idea to families who could look to other resources for putting on a rehearsal dinner - hospice, funeral homes, churches, etc. 

I have to admit that my original inspiration for this idea comes from the YA novel, A Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, in which one of the lead characters invites his friends to a "prefuneral" for himself. Maybe I'll post the excerpt in the future.

Photo of Ken
Team

I absolutely love this idea, Julia.  This comes across to me as a paradigm shift, and one that would be planned by the individual in conjunction with their family.  When I read your post, I imagined that it would best occur before the individual was in their final days/weeks of life, since those final days too often are marked by delirium, discomfort, and/or detachment of the individual from his/her social circles. 

I also imagined that the "dinner" might be both literal and virtual, in that it'd be great to be able to include both those local to the dying person as well as those who live far away from them. 

Look forward to hearing more as this concept develops!

Photo of Julia
Team

Thank you for your comments, Ken! I agree that this would be something better encouraged/marketed while the individual is getting their affairs in order rather than on the deathbed, so to speak. I will definitely make sure to include virtual options in my refinement - that is perfect. 

Photo of Chris
Team

Hi Julia,

I love the way you took something that is normally viewed as sorrowful and recast it as something joyous. I can see where doing this in a hospital setting could be a challenge. Especially so for someone is very ill and is near enough to know that it's dinner time NOW and not a false alarm or could wait for another day (if you know what I mean).
Do you have any thoughts on how that might work?
Have you read Emily's idea about Mind Body Space (https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/end-of-life/ideas/mind-body-space)?

Chris

Photo of Julia
Team

Thank you Chris, and I'm sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I think timing is such a tricky thing, but I also see many families struggle with feelings of guilt or inability to carry on with life because a loved one is close to death for a long period of time. Although this gathering may be premature to death, it could also provide closure sooner and, if need be, an opportunity to shift caretaking responsibility. I think this could be a resource that hospitals make families aware of so that as the person is setting their affairs in order, the family can also consider a proper send-off. 
Thank you for the link to Emily's page. I realize it would be a lot to incorporate a architectural changes for hospitals into this idea but I think in the right place it would definitely be worth it. If that is not feasible, the idea can be implemented in a church or community reception hall easily. 

Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Welcome to the refinement phase Julia! Here are some key questions and milestones we encourage from all ideas in the Refinement:

1. How might this idea address the unique needs of the target audience you're designing for?
2. Clearly summarize the value offering of your idea in 1-2 sentences
3. Communicate your idea in a visual way with user experience maps http://ideo.pn/UX_Map
4. Identify assumptions that need to be answered in order to validate your value offering: http://bit.ly/1Oi8ZHu
5. Collect feedback from potential partners and users to answer the assumptions you’ve identified.

Lastly, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 07/12" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

Photo of Grace
Team

Great idea, Julia. Thanks for posting

Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!